Identifying with “Uncool” Characters: Why I Love The Jungle Book’s Bagheera

When I was a kid (like a kid kid who was under the age of ten), I had a very specific pet peeve regarding the entertainment that I consumed. It centered around the inevitable bashing of any character who showed an inclination toward logic, pragmatism, and worry. My thirst for adventure—oddly—developed gradually, over time. As a very small human, I had an overly-developed sense of caution about the world, and so I was drawn to characters who looked before leaping, who made plans, who considered dangers.

What I’m trying to say is, I hated Disney’s The Jungle Book because no one listened to Bagheera.

I loved worriers and voices-of-reason as a kid. When I was five, C-3PO was the best part of Star Wars. It caused me acute physical distress to watch Pinocchio ignore the words of Jiminy Cricket. My favorite character in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was Alpha 5, Zordon’s assistant robot who watched in constant terror as the Power Rangers got their butts kicked, his sandwich cookie head wobbling whenever something went wrong. Alice in Wonderland used to upset me because I hated how everyone snapped at (or tried to murder) Alice for attempting to make sense of her illogical surroundings and not knowing the rules. These were the folks who comforted me—they did what I would do in their given situations. I was too young to understand that these were generally not the characters who moved a story, who made things happen. Even if I had known, it’s doubtful that I would have cared much. Six-year-olds generally don’t.

The Jungle Book 1967

For me, The Jungle Book was one of the greatest offenders of this set. It began with a wonderfully pragmatic, caring guide for Mowgli, then proceeded to make him look like a grumpy, boring drip to the audience. Baloo was the cool one. Baloo had the cool song, and a cool voice, and he let Mowgli do whatever he wanted. That’s what kids want, right? Of course they do. They want to hang out with someone who will gladly give them cake for breakfast. Who will let them stay up as late as they want. Who will throw the rulebook into the river and watch it float away while they eat their weight in sweet berries and burp the alphabet.

Except I liked doing things by the book. As a kid, I was an awful teacher’s pet. To this day, I still break out in a cold sweat if someone asks me to blatantly break a rule. No idea where it comes from, genetics-wise—my parents are both musicians. They certainly didn’t play by rules. Maybe my engineer grandpa? It doesn’t matter, the point is, Baloo was the enemy to my mind. Baloo was chaos, Baloo was time wasted, Baloo probably got you to try drugs for the first time and I had already been taught to SAY NO.

Yeah, I was kind of an intense child, I guess.

The Jungle Book 1967

There are plenty of movies with characters like Bagheera, who fulfill the same function and foil within the narrative. But The Jungle Book goes a step farther than usual by painting him in a supremely unflattering light. This is because they use the character as a deliberate roadblock to everything fun that would happen in the film. Kids want Mowgli to stay in the jungle, they want to watch him try to be an elephant for a day, they want him to stop Shere Khan. Bagheera wants him to do the smart thing, and get out of mortal danger by living with his own kind. But if Mowgli did that, there would be no movie, so the two have a fight and Bagheera throws his paws in the air and has done with it. Then Mowgli meets Baloo, the cool guy, who agrees to keeps him around with the added benefit of no structure ever and infinite beach volleyball days.

There’s also a bit where Baloo pulls on Bagheera’s tail while the panther is sitting comfortably in a tree, and it makes me want to drop a rock on that carefree dude every time I see it. The action reads to me like nails on a chalkboard, but for eyes. Squeaky eyeball pain.

The Jungle Book 1967

Then Mowgli gets kidnapped by monkeys, and Bagheera—who only pretended to be done with this whole circus because he cares—and Baloo rescue the kid. Bagheera finally explains who is after Mowgli, and tells Baloo that he has to convince the man-cub to go live with people. So Baloo tries, and Mowgli runs away from him, and because this eventually leads the kid right into Shere Khan’s clutches, it makes the very practical panther appear more at fault than anyone. If he hadn’t spoiled Baloo’s forever party, maybe it all would have turned out fine.

All Bagheera is really guilty of is making smart choices to keep the boy safe. But in the world of beloved fictional characters, the majority of the population aren’t going to cuddle the stuffed animal of a character who makes reliable decisions. They’re going to cuddle the one that says things like, “Let me tell you something, little britches,” and “He’s had a big day. It was a real sockeroo.” Baloo gets all the glory by getting swatted down by Shere Khan before the big dust up, and once the tiger’s run off, Bagheera goes to the trouble of eulogizing the guy while Mowgli stands by sniffling, but the point is that Baloo is funny, so he listens to Bagheera go on about how great he is before jumping up and shouting PSYCH I AM SO NOT DEAD. Because it’s hilarious to let people think they’ve lost you, and get them to mourn over your live body, all so you can pop up with a one-liner. That’s what cool guys do. They also give you incredibly original nicknames like “Baggy,” wait—what is actually going on here, why do people like this?

And then the reprise of “Bare Necessities” at the end of the film has Bagheera joining in, as though the movie is now reassuring the audience—it’s okay, the panther’s cool now, too! He gets it!

Bagheera doesn’t need to get it. He is perfectly lovely just as he is.

The Jungle Book 1967

I just never really understood what the movie was trying to convey to me. And it didn’t help that the whole thing did eventually end with Mowgli going to the Man-Village after dispatching Shere Kahn. Like… the point is Bagheera was right, but too much of a stick-in-the-mud to for anyone to take him seriously? Is that the actual moral of the story? That’s a terrible moral. It’s not even a moral, really, it’s just the plot resolving awkwardly as a ten-year-old boy decides to change his entire outlook on existence because he saw a girl for the very first time. It’s an ending that no rational human being can buy unless we actively engage with the idea that Mowgli has somehow figured out human social constructs in the space of thirty seconds, and is aware that this girl is someone he might want to get it on with in several years. It’s not “just a crush” when you decide to abandon the only life you understand for a song about water-carrying, is what I’m saying.

Because of my natural aversion, I was determined to steer clear of the live-action Jungle Book rendition, despite the fact that I liked all the actors involved and typically enjoy Jon Favreau as a director. Then a bunch of friends whose opinions I respect seemed to like it, so I took a chance. I was holding my breath against the expected two-ish hours of semi-aggravated boredom, when something magical happened. Bagheera was… awesome. He was a complete character beyond narrative function, whose cautiousness was not depicted as lamentable, whose concern for Mowgli was out of sheer love, who was never treated like a wet blanket or a stuffy control freak. He was the Bagheera I’d been shouting about since childhood, the one who took it upon himself to care for a infant human boy because he was noble and majestic, dammit, and everyone in the jungle knew it.

The Jungle Book 2016

Perhaps storytelling simply outgrew the trends that made the Jungle Book cartoon so difficult for me to watch as a little one. Maybe we’ve moved beyond the idea that being dependable and sensible are “boring” or “uninteresting” attributes, and realized that children can handle more complex characterizations. It does seem to be the trend for these live-action Disney revamps, and while they’re not particularly risky offerings, they can be more engaging than their predecessors in more ways than one.

All I know is, in the new film, Baloo tells Bagheera that Mowgli is a special kid, and when the panther replies “I know—I raised him,” I was all thanks movie, gonna cry now, and I didn’t even want to like you.

The film did me the extra favor of not showing good old Baloo in a favorable light the whole way through either—we get to see his selfish side, and his fear, and his excessive laziness isn’t depicted as a positive. He has his own journey to make, and he comes out better for it. He and Bagheera arrive at a mutual respect in their efforts to protect the kid. In fact, with their strengths combined, Bagheera and Baloo make excellent co-parents to Mowgli. Yes, I am advocating gay cross-species jungle dads. It’s a great idea. Way better than that Talespin cartoon.

The Jungle Book 2016

There’s nothing quite like having six-year-old you vindicated. While I did eventually come to love characters who moved and shook and committed great acts, I will always have the deepest of soft spots for those pragmatic warriors, the angels on our shoulders. Because being that good usually doesn’t win you any prizes, and it never wins you as many accolades as the cool guy. But the Bagheeras of the world always mattered to me. I always saw them, heeded them, clung to every considered word.

The little worriers of the world need heroes, too. And sometimes those heroes are busy telling you the twenty-one ways you might die today, urging you to retreat when you want to press on. It may not make much sense to the rest, but that solid dose of truth can be far more comforting than a rousing speech or a smooth song any day of the week.

An earlier version of this article was published in April 2016.

Emily Asher-Perrin thinks this probably explains a lot of why she loved Spock, too. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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